Medical or Alternative Treatment for Back Pain?

Given a choice between standard medical care or alternative care for back pain, which would you choose? Patients in the state of Washington who had insurance coverage for both went 50-50.

In this study insurance claims data from two large companies in Washington state were studied. The goal was to find patterns of use and cost between conventional care and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). All patients in the study were treated for back pain. All had insurance coverage for both types of care.

Of the 104,358 adults treated for back pain 43 percent used only complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). CAM was provided by chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and naturopathic physicians.

About 45 percent received conventional care. Conventional medical care was given by doctors, physical therapists, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants. A small number (12 percent) saw both types of providers at least once each.

The authors also reported the number of visits to a CAM provider was double that of conventional care. Men were more likely to see a chiropractor. CAM users were usually younger patients. They had fewer other health problems.

The cost of CAM care was less but so was the amount covered. Most of the extra expense with conventional care was due to X-rays, MRIs, and other imaging tests.

Bonnie K. Lind, MS, PhC, et al. The Role of Alternative Medical Providers for the Outpatient Treatment of Insured Patients with Back Pain. In Spine. June 15, 2005. Vol. 30. No. 12. Pp. 1454-1459.

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